Socio-Cultural Security

The other day I had to drive from Baghdad to Basra.  On the surface it might sound faster to fly, but with delays and limits on transportation upon arrival, I find it easier to drive.  Shortly before my trip began, I had a meeting in the International Zone of Baghdad with a man who was incredulous that a westerner would get into a vehicle and attempt the six-hour voyage to southern Iraq.  He was very concerned that I was engaging in unnecessarily dangerous behavior.  Then we started discussing the concept of Socio-Cultural Security.

At Strategic Social, we define Socio-Cultural Security as a way to maintain the safety of a person or group based on an intimate understanding of the people, culture and customs of one’s surroundings.  For years the personnel at Strategic Social have lived and worked in some of the most challenging and austere political climates on earth.  Our track record of safe and secure success is attributable not to guns and armored vehicles, but rather to understanding how to move, act and interact with various cultures.  This is not to say that we don’t take precautions; we have our protocols and we are very detailed in our adherence to them.  I just stress that our protocols are different.  They are based on a socio-cultural understanding of the geographies in which we live and work.

Strategic Social’s approach to socio-cultural understanding begins with history.  We first seek to understand how a people arrived at their current cultural and geographic reality.  This admittedly academic step is followed by tactile diligence: we get up close and personal with the audience to understand the grassroots of a people.  Initially, this consists of polls, surveys, interviews and simple conversations.  Over time we develop relationships enabling deep understanding and empathy.  We typically take a localized approach by finding partners from the community that we can work with and learn from.  For instance, our team in Kabul consists of men and woman from every major ethnic group in Afghanistan.  Each one of our team members is both a valuable employee and a cultural advisor.  The results include media products that resonate deeply with the audience, social science research that provides actionable information and technology products that are relevant and usable both locally and throughout our global enterprise.

Recently, we have been able to take this approach to our historic markets and expand into new lines of business.  We are now growing our core business to include infrastructure development and new areas of IT and technology services.  In the case of infrastructure development, our approach leads to safer and more productive work sites.  We know who to hire and how to train them.  We can build local capacity while growing our business.  As we build local capacity, it creates more opportunity both for Strategic Social and for the communities in which we work.  Our growth is fueled by an infrastructure that is less expensive than it would be with a traditional approach to security.  We also have a great sanity check on our products and services because our staff members are also our customers in many respects.  I am very proud of our efforts in each country, province and village in which we have team members.

As I drove into Basra earlier this week, I was struck by the surge of foreign nationals that have descended upon the governate.  As we expand our work in the area, I am just hopeful that the companies and individuals building the new Basra are mindful that socio-cultural engagement and empathy are a far greater source of safety and success than guns and armored vehicles.  Socio-Cultural Security is the key to developing the lasting partnerships that will lead to long-term success, be it in Basra, Kabul or anywhere else.


Social Networking can be an Antidote for Siloed Organizations

Is anyone else old enough to remember that classic TV advertisement Cher did for Jack LaLanne Fitness Centers?  The provocatively clad Cher remarks, “If it came in a bottle, everyone would have a great body.”

Jack LaLanne Health Spa Commercial with CHER

It’s interesting to note that Jack LaLanne is no longer around but Cher sure is.  She’s still out there working it at sixty-four!

The point of the ad—anything worth having takes effort—is appropriate to many common challenges in the more mundane world of business.  Recently I’ve been thinking about the pervasiveness of siloed or stove-piped organizations and how challenging it is to get teams of people working across functional lines and outside of established frameworks.  Of course, many see the benefits of this but breaking old habits is hard work and takes committed, concerted effort.

Social Networking and the tools that enable it can be an effective solution to the problem of siloed organizations.    Information and resource siloes occur for many reasons but the principle reason is they are just plain easier to manage.  Functional heads act as gatekeepers of information, employees are instructed to “stay in their lane”, information flows up and down the line or is made accessible on a “need to know” basis.  For organizations that are geographically dispersed, the effect is more pronounced and the flow of information or the availability of shared resources poses an even greater challenge. More often than not the effort of cross-functional teamwork just doesn’t happen, because it is just “too hard.”

So, yes, matrix-style,  non-siloed organizations can be more difficult to manage and introduce new layers of complexity and perhaps a certain measure of uncertainty and risk.  But in my experience there are a few steps companies can take to “ease the pain” of breaking down established organizational hierarchies and tap into the creative power of the organization at large:

1)     Organize key initiatives around cross-functional project teams.  Most big projects require the efforts of staff across the entire organization, but too often, results are tracked and evaluated within the functional framework and priorities.  But when project teams are established, with goals and milestones clearly understood, collaboration and problem solving can happen more seamlessly.

2)     Reward employees thinking and working outside of information silos. Breaking the habit of siloed thinking requires a cultural shift in some companies.  Everyone throughout the organization needs to see that cross-functional effort is valued and rewarded.  Lessons learned—both positive and negative need to be captured and shared.

3)     Set boundaries & define roles.  A matrixed organization is not a license for anarchy.   Team members still need to have clearly defined roles everyone needs to know who is in the role of decision-maker, and who is mainly in the assist role.  If everyone thinks they are merely contributing to the project, but not ultimately accountable for anything, chaos can ensue.

4)     If there is friction, or if toes get stepped on, try not to sweat it.  Business can be a contact sport and there is bound to be a little body-checking from time-to-time.  Things can get heated at times but learn to accept that this is part of progress.

5)     Cross-train as many people in your organization as possible.   I am a huge proponent of cross-training.  It can have the profound effect of breaking people out of siloed thinking.  It broadens employees skill sets, creates a more resilient organization and promotes a more stimulating work environment.  It’s hard, and even disruptive, but it pays big dividends.

6)     Make sure your organization has the right tools to enable Social Networking and cross-functional  teamwork.    Here at Strategic Social, we understand the importance of technology for streamlining and enabling a cross-functional culture. For example, MediaMAS is a robust web-accessible, permission-based database is essential for getting far-flung teams “on the same page.”  Likewise the Strategic Social Platform is communication and collaboration portal, designed to facilitate information dissemination, and speed-up decision-making. It features a customizable dashboard that provides access to shared files, discussion boards, and feeds to external sources such as RSS, Flicker, Twitter and YouTube.

None of these steps is a guarantee for success.  There are organizations out there that succeed at some level with the same structured, siloed habits they’ve had for decades.  But they will find it increasingly difficult to compete with matrix organizations that are learning and refining the art of working across clearly defined verticals.  It can be hard work.  Not everyone is going to do it.  But the organizations that perfect the skills will be better equipped for the long-haul.